The House Oversight Committee is investigating secretive negotiations between the White House and Saudi Arabia to export nuclear reactors and related technology to Saudi Arabia. These negotiations were initiated in 2016 by a group of retired military officers, including former National Security Advisor and retired Lt. General Michael Flynn, and has since been taken up by the White House and an industry consortium, called IP3.
The Oversight Committee published a report in February 2019, documenting the conduct of the negotiations, which allegedly involve violations of the Atomic Energy Act. Also, in March, news outlets reported on leaked documents that indicate the Department of Energy improperly authorized seven U.S. corporations in the IP3 group to transfer nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia. [At this time (April 2019), it is not clear whether those transfers have already been completed.]
NIRS submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to DOE in April 2019 to obtain documents related to two other potentially related DOE activities:
- A recently-awarded no-bid contract with one of the IP3 member companies (Centrus) to carry out a uranium enrichment pilot project.
- DOE’s new strategic plan to advance the U.S. nuclear energy industry.
NIRS is concerned that the DOE’s efforts to build up the U.S. nuclear industry could come at the price of supporting Saudi Arabia’s nuclear weapons ambitions.
DOE-Centrus Uranium Enrichment Project
The purpose of this pilot project is to demonstrate that current U.S. enrichment technology for producing High-Assay Low-Enriched Uranium (HA-LEU) — that is uranium enriched to between 5% and 19.75% U-235, the most common fissile isotope of uranium. This raises concerns about the potential for the enrichment technology to be used to produce even higher grades of enrichment to support development of nuclear weapons. High-Enriched Uranium (HEU) is uranium enriched to 20% or more U-235; and weapons-grade uranium is HEU at 90% or more U-235.
- Nuclear watchdogs warn against blurring energy, military uses at Ohio fuel plant
- Dept. of Energy notice of uranium enrichment pilot project
DOE Nuclear Energy Advisory Committee
DOE’s Nuclear Energy Division (DOE-NE) initiated a strategic plan in 2018 to rebuild the U.S. nuclear energy industry’s technological and industrial capacity. DOE also reorganized its Nuclear Energy Advisory Committee (NEAC) to serve as a forum for coordinating DOE and industry efforts to advance the strategic plan.
- July 9, 2018 meeting minutes: details elements of the nuclear energy strategic plan
- October 13, 2018 meeting minutes: includes updates on DOE-NE strategic plan
- Nuclear Energy Leadership Act (S. 903): bill introduced to advance major elements of the strategic plan, and require DOE to submit the plan to Congress and make regular progress reports.
One of the four primary goals of the plan is to export nuclear reactors to other countries. Obtaining an exclusive nuclear agreement with Saudi Arabia is viewed as a major opportunity to re-establish U.S. leadership in the global nuclear industry. Due to the high cost of construction, it is difficult for most countries in the world to finance nuclear reactor projects. A small number of countries have great enough sovereign wealth and/or government budgets to finance nuclear projects themselves, including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and India. South Korea, for instance, is building four reactors for UAE, and India has reached project agreements with Russia, France, the U.S., and Canada.